Check out Alex's blog for championship recaps, competitor interviews, and other memory sports musings.
Alex's Memory Sports FAQ
What are your official memory sports stats?
World Records (current: 7, historical: 11) : Hour Numbers (3238), 30 min Numbers (1933), 15 min Numbers (1100), 5 min Numbers (568), 5 min Dates (133), Speed Cards (analog: 15.61 sec, digital: 16.86 sec), 80 Digits (17.65 sec)
National Records (13)
How did you first get interested in memory competitions? Book/website recommendations?
I first entered the world of memory techniques after stumbling across a TED talk by Joshua Foer entitled “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do.” Fascinated, I read Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, which interweaves the science of memory with the world of memory competitions. Soon after, I began training the techniques and experimenting with different learning strategies.
These are the main resources I used to get started:
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien
Memory in a Month by Ron White
What resources do you use to train?
I do most of my training online. The bulk I do on Memocamp, a fantastic site for practicing any memory competition event under the sun: cards, numbers, dates, names, abstract images, etc. The site has leaderboards so you can see how you stack up against the best. I also often use the Memory League training site to practice cards, numbers, names, words, and images. Both of these are paid services. You can find free training resources on Art of Memory.
What system do you use to memorize numbers?
Since mid-2014, I have used a 3-digit system (one unique image for each 3-digit combo from 000-999) based on the Major System phonetic code, shown below. My system is approximately ⅓ people and ⅔ objects. I place two of these 3-digit images per locus. In my first year of training, I used a 2-digit Person-Action-Object (PAO) system.
Each digit is assigned a corresponding phonetic sound:
0: s, z; 1: t, d; 2: n; 3: m; 4: r; 5: l; 6: j, ch, sh, soft g; 7: k, hard g; 8: f, v; 9: p, b;
For a given 3-digit combo, I squeeze the three sounds together to form an image. For example, 375 might correspond to MKL, so I chose “Michael Jordan” as my image for 375. 357 became “milk.” 604 became “chess rook.” 970 became “Biggie Smalls.”
Here are a few links for brainstorming Major system images (if you're stuck on a number, try plugging it into these for some ideas):
Also see: "When you have multiple images in one locus, how do you remember their order?"
What system do you use to memorize cards? How would you compare your system to other higher-level systems (eg. Ben System)?
Since mid-2014, I have used a 2-card system consisting of 1352 images (992 of which overlap with my numbers system). Like my numbers system, it is based on the Major System phonetic code. Fellow USA national team member Lance Tschirhart wrote a detailed description here (my system is Part 1 of his system). My system uses a variable number of loci each deck. In my first year of training, I used a 1-card Person-Action-Object (PAO) system.
In an interview with Nelson Dellis, I explain how I differentiate between my two card "blocks": start at around 17:00. I explain the basic idea, but Lance's link will still be necessary to truly understand the phonetics (although it's essentially the Major System with a few tweaks to handle the face cards).
Of course, different systems work differently for different people, so it's hard to identify one "best" system. That said, here are the reasons I chose my system (over other 2-card systems like the Ben System): With only 1352 images instead of 2704, I can maintain faster image recognition with less practice, while still capitalizing on many of the advantages of a large 2-card system. Because 992 of my 1352 card images overlap with those of my numbers system, I only need 360 "card-specific" images (vs ~1700 for a Ben System). My system can also clue me into the order of images. For example, if I have a two-image locus, I know that the first image will be black-first and the second red-first.
The Ben System does have an advantage in that you can use a consistent number of images per locus (eg. 2 or 3); my system requires a variable number. There is also no ambiguity in the Ben System: an image always corresponds to a particular card pair, rather than 2 possible pairs.
Also see: "When you have multiple images in one locus, how do you remember their order?"
What system do you use to memorize abstract images?
I created preset images (pulled from my larger cards system) for each of the ~150 background textures. I then place two images per locus, skipping the fifth image for a total of 2 loci per line.
How long did it take you to learn your current systems?
I created my 1352-image cards system in June of 2014. It took until approximately October (training about 30 minutes each day) until I had reached what I deemed to be a decent level of proficiency (i.e. equaling my personal bests set using my old PAO system).
Do you recommend learning a higher-level (eg. 3-digit/2-card) system?
It all depends on your priorities. For those seriously interested in competitive memorization at the highest level, I'd wholeheartedly recommend a system like the one I use. For the more casual memorizer, I'd consider that overkill. In my opinion, it's much more time-efficient and sensible to learn a basic 2-digit or 1-card system, which can be created in less than an hour.
When you have multiple images in one locus, how do you remember their order?
Since I use "single-image" systems -- each digit/card/etc group always translates to a single image -- I must still recall the order of images within each locus. Contrast that with PA- or PAO-type systems, which by definition give you the sequence.
I deal with this mainly by focusing on story directionality. For example, say I'm looking at 375 - 004: Michael Jordan - scissors. I might imagine Michael Jordan using scissors to cut the locus. 004 - 375? A large pair of scissors are cutting Michael Jordan as he lies on the locus.
For some image pairs, that process doesn't work as cleanly. In that case, I focus on making the images interact directionally in space -- left to right or top to bottom. Take 536 - 609: lime juice - Empire State Building. I'd imagine a lime juice container hovering above and squirting sour lime juice down on the ESB. 609 - 536? Perhaps the ESB falls to its right and squashes the lime juice container. Or maybe it's dropped from above and crushes it. Another option is to make the first image ostensibly larger than the second.
Granted, I still occasionally make "swapping" mistakes, but following these is usually enough to ensure I recall the correct order.
What’s your main advice for improving at memory sports?
In the early stages, my main advice would simply be to enjoy the process. Don't worry so much about speed. Once you've laid a sufficient foundation, I'd then focus on speed and trust that accuracy will follow.
What is your training schedule like?
I train for approximately 30 minutes each day on average. This varies depending on upcoming competitions, for instance the world championship, which has multiple hour-long events. Even during the "off-season," however, I aim for about 30 minutes every day. Generally, I spend about 25% of that time on speed drills and the other 75% practicing competition events. I prefer to train in the morning, although I often space out these drills and events throughout the day.
Have you adjusted your lifestyle since starting memory sports? Exercise? Sleep? Diet?
I wouldn't say my lifestyle goals have changed since starting memory sports, although my involvement has given me extra motivation to stick to them. I'll hopefully get around to writing something more detailed at some point, but my approach is pretty basic. Nothing ground-breaking. I try to exercise daily--a combination of weights, cardio, and calisthenics. I shoot for 7.5+ hours of sleep. I meditate 10-20 minutes per day with the Headspace app. I don't keep a strict diet, but I try to eat a lot of vegetables and fish. I take one NOW DHA-500 capsule each day; this is the only supplement I take. I avoid soda and sugary drinks.
For more specifics about my training schedule, see "What is your training schedule like?"
How do you balance your time between medical school and memory sports?
I keep my memory sports commitment relatively low (less than 60 min per day) so as not to take too much time away from my schoolwork. For more details, see "What is your training schedule like?"
Do you ever erase palaces or actively clean them of old images?
You might consider making an active effort to erase "ghost images"--images on loci you want to reuse. The short answer is that I never actively clean palaces, whether for memory sports or learning projects.
In training for memory competitions, it's a necessity to reuse your stock of "competition palaces," as it would be neither practical nor wise to use a new palace for each new discipline. In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer mentions that "mental athletes always halt their training a week before contests in order to do a spring cleaning of their memory palaces. They walk through them and mentally empty them of any lingering images, because in the heat of competition, the last thing you want to do is accidentally remember something you memorized last week." For instance, you might imagine each image exploding or melting into nothingness.
Although I usually rest palaces I will use in competition at least a week before the event, I don't actively do anything to clean them. I just let any old images fade with time, and I find that sufficient. In training a discipline like speed cards, I cycle through 10 palaces. By the time I've returned to palace #1 again, say a week or two later, any of the old deck's images are gone, or at most very faint. I would estimate my images only take 2-4 days to fade away. All of this means I don't have much insight into how one might actively erase palaces as part of a training strategy, but my point--for any newcomers considering this approach--is that I personally haven't found it necessary.
How many memory palaces do you use for competitions? How do you organize them?
For competition events, I use about 3,000 loci spread among 80 memory palaces (see this post detailing how I created them all). Generally, I select five loci per room/area, using as many loci as I can for a given palace (i.e. some have 200, some have 20). When using memory palaces for learning, I simply pick a location to start and choose the loci as I go - and so do not keep track of the number of loci. For more details about brainstorming potential palaces, check out Refine Your Technique #1: Finding Palaces.